Gingrich Urges GOP to Go After Food Stamps

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Say what you will about Newt Gingrich, but the man's record includes the Herculean comeback of Republicans in 1994, thanks partly to the "Contract With America." That's why leading Republicans and GOP candidates are looking to Gingrich as the quarterback for the 2010 campaign. So what's he advising them to do?

Vilify food stamps. Gingrich more than most people knows that Washington tends to lock itself in intensely wonkish policy squabbles—need one say more than "budget reconciliation"?—that simply don't resonate with the rest of the country. So to make it simple, Gingrich and his political action committee are sending a "close the deal" memo to Republican candidates, spelling it out in über simple terms. What do you want more of: paychecks or food stamps?

It's a bit out of left field. Most of the election cycle has centered on rich people and their tax cuts rather than poor people and their food-assistance programs. But there's a very obvious reason why Gingrich wants to frame the issue this way: food-stamp usage has historically gone up with Democrats in office, and down when Republicans were in charge. Frame it like that, and it looks as though Dems are the welfare-state-loving socialists and Republicans are the patriotic capitalists.

Never mind that targeting food stamps is a tad insensitive. It's no real surprise that with the recession, food-stamp usage has spiked since 2008. The program now feeds one in eight Americans, and one in four children. In about 800 counties, even more children receive government assistance. Trying to reduce the number of people who need to take advantage of the program is a valiant goal, one worthy of, say, a congressional investigation. But turning the issue into a political point at the height of election season seems to demean the seriousness and complexity of the problem. And, since lower-income Americans are the ones who rely upon the program, pitting paychecks against food stamps is not all that different from pitting rich against poor.

Republicans have long struggled to shake the image of the party of wealthy white folks, but belittling food stamps seems a curious strategy to regain the GOP's identity. That kind of rhetoric might play well with those Tea Partiers who can afford to jet to Washington for a political rally to restore conservativism. But those who can't–the ones who receive food stamps–probably won't be flattered by the argument.